On The Spot: Lee County Supervisor of Elections Sharon Harrington

“Now we are under a lot of scrutiny across the country and even more so in Florida.”

BY December 7, 2015

To say Sharon Harrington has a lot riding on the 2016 elections is an understatement.

The Lee County Supervisor of Elections’ woes began on Election Day 2012, when voters endured five-hour-long lines and voting machines failed. More recently, a city council candidate took her to task about the lack of early voting places in his precinct. She’s under the gun for $750,000 worth of iPads purchased in 2014 and later discovered to be incompatible with software that would allow them to be used for early voting check-in. She requested $890,000 to fix them, but later withdrew the request. Wary county commissioners meanwhile have agreed to spend $700,000 on 175 Express Vote Machines that will bring the county into compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. An audit released in October found Harrington failed to document purchases, use competitive bidding or hire an independent contractor to examine the technology. Harrington responded that those steps aren’t required.

Harrington admits to a mounting sense of pressure. Nevertheless, sitting in her office on the third floor of a Lee County government building, she doesn’t appear fazed. And, with a little more than a year to go before showtime, she seems determined to make sure the next election goes off without a hitch.

Problems a decade in the making

“Really this all started with the 2000 election. Before that, no one really paid too much attention to the voting process. But that all changed. Now we are under a lot of scrutiny across the country and even more so in Florida to make sure things go properly. But before that, no one really thought much about what a Supervisor of Elections was doing.”

When the wheels came off

“Everybody had problems (in 2012). It wasn’t just a Lee County thing. The basic essence was changes to the early voting rules that came down in 2011. Then you had a ballot with 11 or 12 (constitutional) amendments. The legislature decided to run the full text of each amendment on the ballot. And in Lee County we have to publish ballots in both English and Spanish. So you are talking about adding several pages to the ballots. Now combine all of that with redistricting that hit in the same year. Plus, we were trying to save the taxpayers money by having fewer precincts. It took a lot of time for people to get through those ballots.”

Return to paper ballots

“At the same time, we were going back to paper ballots after everyone had gotten used to using touch screens. After the problems in 2006 in Sarasota, Gov. Crist got rid of the touch-screen balloting. … That added to the time.”

About those iPads

“We originally purchased the iPads as a means of getting rid of paperwork during voter registration. They did exactly what we wanted them to do. But we when we tried to convert them for ADA voting, well, it was like putting Ford parts in a Chevy. We thought we could get the programs to work on the existing equipment, but they wouldn’t. So we needed to buy the right equipment. But it was taking so much time we ended up rescinding the requests.”

Moving forward

“After 2012, we took a step back and looked at the things we can control. We are getting into social media to help give voters up-to-date information about polling locations. We are really pushing early voting and voting by mail, which is how about two-thirds of the votes are cast now. We’ve added six more early voting locations in Lee County, so we’ll have 11 open. But it’s tough to find places that are willing to be a polling location. We can’t use schools because it’s difficult to deal with voting plus all the students. A lot of churches and other places that used to be polling places don’t want to have their property tied up for long periods of time. That’s the problem we are having in Fort Myers. We’ve gone out to actively seek out places to be polling locations, but so far no one has said ‘yes’ because you have to give up your space for weeks.”

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